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New Attempts To Bolster 'Devastating' Census Response On Eastern Long Island

Courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau

The deadline to participate in the 2020 U.S. Census count is on September 30. That’s a month early, because of a Trump administration decisionthat’s being fought in federal court. Community groups are hard at work on eastern Long Island to improve participation.

The East End is dramatically undercounted. Nearly every community is below the national average of 65 percent participation. Preliminary data shows the census response rate of some communities of color on Long Island hovers around 50 percent.

The lowest response is from East Hampton, Westhampton Beach and Orient, where less than 30 percent have filled out the Census.

Bill Buchner, WSHU: Joining us now is Carolyn Peabody, clinical professor at Stony Brook University. She specializes in policy and political action, and is Census coalition partner.

Carolyn, Thank you for joining All Things Considered.

Carolyn Peabody: Thanks for having me, Bill.

BB: Can you explain briefly why the East End is undercounted?

CP: So the East End has a variety of different kinds of housing, lots of second houses. So to some extent the undercount can be explained by the fact that there are people who don't count themselves here, but in some other communities in the city. But it's also because there are a lot of people who are documented and undocumented immigrants, Native Americans and African Americans who are reluctant to fill out the census. And so there's a tremendous need among that community for there to be outreach.

BB: The Census count dictates how much federal funding communities get and how many seats they get in the House of Representatives. Why is an accurate Census count important now more than ever?

CP: There are lots of important reasons why it is now more important than ever that people fill out the census. Clearly, the COVID pandemic has created an enormous amount of additional need that exists in all communities. So the funding that's going to be allocated to address the repercussions of the COVID pandemic is going to be most likely you using the census data. In addition, the hundreds of billions of dollars that are allocated annually will be allocated for the next 10 years using the data from the information from the 2020 census. And they're used to fund programs like headstart, Pell grants for college, funds for hospitals, nursing homes, roadwork school, breakfast and lunch programs, Medicaid, Indian Health Service programs for the aging, transit funding, highway construction, Medicare programs for women, under the Violence Against Women Act that protect women from domestic violence. There's so many programs that are impacted by the allocations that are based on the census data. And in addition, again, it's going to be decisions that are made for the next 10 years that are going to be based on the answers that we get from the data that we get from the census right now.

BB: You wear many hats in the community, as an educator but also as a community organizer. How are community groups and local officials trying to improve Census participation on eastern Long Island?

CP: So after the pandemic hit, what we had to do was completely shift gears and move into virtual and remote efforts to try to reach out using social media and do all kinds of creative facebook live events that have been incredibly challenging because it's really hard to get out to as many people as we would have gotten out, had the pandemic not hit. So one of the things that we're doing right now is, as a last last ditch effort, because the census deadline is coming up on September 30, we have built a call together and under the leadership of Martha Murphy from Stephan Mohair, we have decided to pull together a caravan that's going to be from both the North and the South Fork is going to simultaneously leave from both forks and end up in Riverhead for a a press conference at the government buildings on Route 51. So this Thursday at 9:30, we will leave Greenport in St. Agnes and on the North Fork, and on the South Fork cars will leave from Sacred Heart church on Hill Street in South Hampton and pick up more cars from Good Ground park in Hampton bays and converge on government buildings for a press conference with with County Executive Steve Bellone and the town supervisors from Southold, Riverhead and Southampton, as well as [state Assemblyman] Fred Thiele and leaders from local schools, hospitals and organizations, that will emphasize how the potential financial and political impact that will result from the undercount of the census is going to thoroughly threaten life on the East End. And any kind of undercount would do that. But the kind of undercount that we've had, and that we're facing right now, that is reflected in the numbers from the census is really devastating.

BB: Who do you hope to reach on Thursday?

CP: So what we're hoping to do is to call attention and there has been a relative dearth of voices from public leaders. They have been trying in their own ways, but we're trying to bring everyone together on the east end to highlight the fact that this is something that everyone One is going to be affected by. And so what we're trying to do is by doing the caravans, we're trying to sort of call attention. And by ending up at this press conference, what it's going to enable us to do, hopefully, is to make enough noise to bring attention to people and urge people to understand that not only is it a safe process, that one of the reasons that people don't fill out the census is because they're afraid, and that the data that they're that they're giving about themselves is going to be used against them. And so our leaders are going to reassure everyone that this is a very safe process where people where there is strict confidentiality, no information about any individual is ever released to any other department.

And it's only reported in its aggregate form. And so it's completely safe and people who work for the census are under law. If they violate and share any information, they're at risk of a fine of $250,000 and time in jail. So it's a very safe process. It takes about seven to 10 minutes.

So we're trying to get as many people to hear that from not just from us, from all of the community leaders, but also from tribal and and political leaders, and the leaders of all the organizations, schools and hospitals that can let people know how important it is and how the impact will be pretty devastating if we maintain the current numbers that we have counted so far.

BB: Who is hard to count?

CP: Because of the administration's recent efforts to consider incorporating the citizenship as a category or as a question in the census, even though it was pulled back and an additional efforts by the administration to say that undocumented people will not be counted, I think that very there's so much apprehension among undocumented people and even documented people immigrants as well.

My own work is with the indigenous staff accounts and I know that Native American population has also been very reluctant to fill out the census. This is something that has happened for many census efforts and and we have been trying really hard, but I think between Native Americans and documented and undocumented immigrants, I think those are the two most difficult populations, and of course homeless people because of trying to find them.

Carolyn Peabody is a Census coalition partner. She works with Indigenous Suffolk Counts and North Fork Unity Action Committee to drive households in eastern Long Island to participate in the Census.

Participate in the Census count by phone, mail or online at 2020census.gov.

Sarah Tantawy contributed to this story.

Bill began his radio journey on Long Island, followed by stops in Schenectady, Bridgeport, Boston and New York City. He’s glad to be back on the air in Fairfield County, where he has lived with his wife and two sons for more than 20 years.